Observations on science fiction, writing, life and whatnot

“The Signal”

THE SIGNAL

By Terry D. England

“Dead stop. Unfold complete. Distance: Twenty-four LY.”

Stars and galactic and nebulous objects cluttered the view field, surrounding the Kepler with a blazing pattern of light and dark.

“We’re point zero-zero-zero two meters off target.” Hard’s voice betrayed no emotion. Hard was the pilot this trip and he was doing what Tallah binDen expected, jumping through hoops with ninety-nine-plus percent accuracy. When those hoops covered huge chunks of the Milky Way Galaxy, the captain wanted the best.

“Secure,” Tallah said. “Status.”

“Next jump, seven minutes,” Alie, this trip’s engineer, piped. Her voice carried just a tinge of musical rhythm, a quality she’d kept from her original birth physique.

“Captain, why do we wait?” Rasha said. “Sohara is not likely to be following procedure.”

“That’s Sohara’s problem. We’re jumping all over creation on unmarked paths. I’m not risking this ship for a little glory.”

“Only the biggest glory of existence,” Rasha muttered. Tallah could only imagine Rasha’s expression because she hadn’t placed an avatar on the virtual bridge.

Captain,” Alie interrupted gently, “I request five extra minutes. I can’t get a clear reading through the gravity clutter hereabouts.”

“Take the time. Rasha, what do you show in communication algorithms?”

“The skies are blank. Except for our mystery signal.”

“No one is here, then.”

“No one is here, that’s right, sir.”

“And what if there had been?”

“I … don’t follow.”

Tallah went ahead and opened a window that showed Rasha’s physical form. When discussing matters of importance (“lecturing,” a couple of the crew might mutter), Tallah liked to who he’s talking to. Rasha had gone back to red hair, tied back but with loose tendrils swirling about her face in the null gravity. Her slim form was wrapped in what looked like a white shroud that billowed around her. “What if there had been another signal here, but we were in a such a crashing hurry we didn’t recognize it?”

A frown appeared on the delicate face. “We’d never know it was there.”

Precisely. That’s one of the risks I will not take.”

She looked up, green eyes flashing. “I will proceed with a full-spectrum scan, my Captain.”

Tallah smiled. “Your efficiency is not in question, Rasha.”

She hesitated, then a small smile formed on her lips. She nodded, turned back to the console. She became very still, the eight fingers of each hand playing over the flat surface rapidly.

“I am withdrawing from the bridge,” Tallah said.

“Operating standard,” came Alie’s voice.

The bridge faded away, replaced by the arboretum where an oak tree sheltered the captain’s physical body. Thick branches divided into many smaller branches close to the ground, most of the smaller ones covered in broad leaves. On a planet, the tree would be considered stunted. In zero-gee, the cropped top and wide base were normal.

Tallah let the anchor strap hold him as he stretched his muscles. The Kepler didn’t have a bridge; the scenario was a holdover from ancient steamships. His crew was where they were needed, near the devices that controlled, drove, maintained and analyzed the vessel or the space around it. His mind would be on the “bridge” when needed, but his body likely would be in this arboretum, where trees and plants grew along the inner rim of the life-sciences cylinder.

He released the anchor, pushed off and glided along the guiderail that snaked around the short but broad trees. His mind turned to Sohara, picturing her in Galactic Institute cadet uniform. A no-nonsense female of middle height, muscular body with smallish breasts, short, dark hair and steely eyes. They had graduated with Tallah a half-point ahead.

“Today you beat me,” she had said.

“Truce?” he’d said without much hope.

“Tomorrow is a new day.”

He sighed. “Yes, it is.”

The rivalry continued during their spaceborne career although they hardly saw each other. Each promotion, if it came first, was a chance to gloat. Her getting command of the starleapship Kalpana Chawla three months before he got the Kepler meant for the moment she still retained bragging rights—as she often reminded him.

Then the long-sought-after signal began whispering from somewhere far across the galaxy. Galactic Fleet sent the closest ships to the source jumping after the biggest prize of all time. Those ships happened to the Kalpana Chawla and the Kepler.

“Thinking about the enemy again?”

“Sohara isn’t captain of an enemy ship, you know that, Kerin,” Tallah said.

Kerin was slim, with yellow hair pulled back from an angular face. Glittering blue eyes regarded him. A white long-sleeved blouse covered her upper torso and her leg coverings stopped at mid- thigh. Her long toes gripped a crooked branch in a rowan tree. Overall, she looked dainty but shapely. She always looked dainty and shapely, though; he’d never seen her in any genome but a female’s.

She shrugged slightly. “Whenever there’s a competition, the other side takes on the aspect of an enemy.”

“Call us competitors, rather.” He pushed off from the rail, sailed across the short distance and lightly touched, then gripped the branch with his own toes with hardly a shake of the leaves. He stopped just in front of her. “She’s not an enemy.”

An eyebrow lifted. “That’s magnanimous. After some of the tricks she—”

“What’s the medical status of the crew, Doctor?”

She gazed at him a second, sly smile on her face. “All entities within para— everyone’s fine. Because of the haste of our departure, we have no spare organform for Hard, so I ordered a blank just in case. He might stay disembodied all the time, but if the need arises, I’d prefer he have that avenue of escape available.”

“So do I.”

She nodded.

He gave her a long, slow look, then touched her cheek gently, ran a hand down her neck and shoulder. They both had to brace or the action would send them spinning off in opposite directions. “Nice form.”

She smiled. “Are you compatible?”

“Anatomically correct, I believe the ancient phrase goes.”

She raised an eyebrow. He moved closer.

“Ship ready for jump,” a voice intoned.

“Hard, your timing is impeccable. Excuse me.” The arboretum faded and the bridge formed in his vision.

“Jump path set. Thirty-two thousand LY.”

“Hard, you’re not taking a jump this big just because of the mission?”

“Confidence factor ninety-six, sir.”

“I thought we were having trouble seeing ahead.”

The gravity cluster was caused by well-defined sources,” Alie said. “Once known, those sources define the path remarkably well.”

All right. Comm?”

“No signs of signals from an intelligent sources,” Rasha said. “Except, of course—you know.”

“Yes. Any reds? Sopre? Kerin? Ornme?” All replied with negatives. “Hard, go.”

“Initiating field form.” A second later, “Destination point set. Folding.”

The stars smeared into a wash of light, then disappeared as the view field blanked. Just over five seconds later, they smeared back into points and smudges, but the pattern had changed. The bridge scenario, based upon the ship’s sensor readings, turned red from light spilling from a red dwarf to starboard.

“Dead stop,” Hard intoned again. “Unfold complete. Distance achieved. Point-aught-six meters off of target because of red’s gravity. We’re in a null-spot despite the local furnace.”

“Secure. Time.”

“Fifty-two seconds.”

“Give it three minutes. Copy that, Comm?”

“Aye.”

“I am withdrawing from the bridge.”

“Operating standard.”

Kerin’s golden hair surrounded by green replaced the bridge’s red light. She held up her hand. “I’ve got work to do. You do, too.”

“Two minutes ago you didn’t.”

I came to my senses.” She gave him a smile. “Care.” She twisted her foot so her body swing against his and planted a quick kiss on his cheek.

“You sure you don’t want to follow up on that?”

She smiled. “Some other time.” She pushed off, then fired a burst from a small canister on her belt. With a hiss of air, she moved away. He leaped for the guide rail and pushed hard. He wanted to make his cabin before his next jump. Not that it made any difference for anyone on the ship; inertia, like most everything else inside a folded universe, didn’t operate.

The next jump came and went, only sixteen thousand light years. They were flitting through the galaxy like a ghost, chasing a thin thread of signals that barely promised hope to an ancient human dream. The pauses weren’t even specks in the time being swallowed in the jumps, just breathers so the human minds inside the ship could be comforted that the way ahead was clear.

But it wasn’t.

Instantly after dropping from an eleven-thousand-LY jump, alarms blared and the ship rocked, jerked, the force snapping Tallah’s body against its restraints. He instantly called up the bridge where four genuinely huge rocks—readout said one was half as big as the ship—were glowing red, the ship’s way of saying the rocks were hurtling toward them.

Asteroid field,” Hard said. “Plotting path out.”

Here,” Alie said. A projected path appeared in the view field. “We won’t have to move much. This is a local cluster.”

Got it.” The ship moved, the angry red on the rocks faded even though they continued to tumble. One actually bounced off another, small pieces exploding from both. The ship’s force field snapped on to push the smaller pieces away, but the larger rocks also got a jolt as their acceleration suddenly spiked.

Like the ancient table game of pool, Tallah thought. And my ship is the cue ball.

Pinpricks of light flashed among the rough shapes.

Are those off the ship?”

Aye, captain, beta strut,” Ornme said.

Show me.”

The view reversed, down the port side. Girders, jagged sheets of metal and a tangle of thin tentacle-like filaments swirled like a captured organism. Beta strut was a grid of beams connected in pyramidal shapes 120 meters long by 80 wide. It twisted in the forces of the ship’s yawing, threatening the two other struts that held the field-fold mechanism.

Beta filaments are entangling the others,” Hard said.

“Jettison,” Tallah said.

Almost immediately, the beams connecting the ship to the grid snapped apart. Built-up torque whipped beta group around almost end-over-end, spinning and tumbling on three axes.

Keep us away from it.”

Aye.”

The tumbling structure diminished rapidly.

The ship had halted above the plain of the asteroid belt. Light reflected off what must have been millions, but the wide gaps between them fooled the eye. The local cluster the ship had dropped among now was breaking apart.

Report.”

Clear, sir,” Alie said. “This belt surrounds that star entirely.”

No damage to main ship, sir,” Sopre reported. “We could have saved beta if we hadn’t had to dodge the asteroids.”

“The other struts are sound but the interlacing has been damaged,” Sopre said.

“No injuries,” Kerin said from somewhere.

“Good. Repair time?”

“Ten to twenty hours,” Alie said.

“Rouse Mallory, Gololo and Erin. Use all the AIs you want, from nano to macro.” He gestured at the view field. “At least raw material won’t be a problem. Alie, Ornme, check to see what damage we caused this system.”

Aye,” came the combined reply.

“Uh, this pretty much puts us out of the race, boss. I’m—”

“I won’t accept apologies because there are none to be had, Hard. A risk we always take in jumping, hitting objects with tiny gravitational signatures.” He shrugged, not sure everyone could see the gesture. “These things happen. Besides, who’s to say Sohara hasn’t run into a few snags of her own?”

Or worse, but he didn’t want to go there.

*

Tallah watched Sopre, as spidery as the grid around him, climb up the lattice. Beta’s twisting had made a tangled web—a real web, not something imagined—of gamma’s filaments, but, six hours into the repairs, Alie had shortened the initial estimate. Nanobot ants crawled right over Sopre in their programmed haste, but he ignored them. Four-armed Erin and stocky Gololo, a couple of hours ago in off-duty relaxation modes, were about thirty meters below Sopre. The mining factory floated in the distance, digging into an asteroid and extracting raw materials being fed to the fabrication facility. Completed pyramids emerged as if a giant spider were spinning a gossamer structure of metal. Tallah watched this activity with the part of his mind still connected to shipweb. Another part of his brain concentrated on a plate of food on the table before him. Masticating clumps of vegetable and animal matter were a couple of the sensate pleasures he indulged in. To some, like Hard, life in the shipweb was enough; Tallah wasn’t ready to give up all physicality. Fortunately, there were others—Kerin—who shared those bodily pleasures occasionally. As he chewed, trying to guess what the protein source was, Alie and Ornme hailed him. He formed a third window to see their avatars, Alie with flowing dark hair and Ornme a youngish male figure with a bald head.

We didn’t do any damage here because we can’t,” Alie said. “Can you guess why, Cap?”

Nobody here to do it to,” Tallah said.

Bang on. The asteroids are the standard boring nickel-iron types gradually collecting the left-over dust from the formation of this system. Because they’re so boring—size, makeup, orbit, velocity, distance—they rarely collide. They’re such slugs that it’ll be eons before they make anything bigger than a planetesimal. At least until we came along.”

We’ve upset the status quo?”

The initial group is rolling and tumbling like children where we popped in. Projections say the disturbance eventually will spread along the entire belt. Planet formation could be accelerated. None here now, though, not even gas giants, although the raw material is available for that, too.”

Good. I’d hate be the one who destroys the only life we ever found.”

Uh, boss …”

Yes, Ornme?”

Well, it’s just some thoughts, not real relevant to our situation here.”

Go ahead, we’ve got time.”

How’d you like to be the cause of life here? The asteroids here already were aggregating, but we kicked it all into high gear. So we might’ve started something, um, bigger than we can imagine.”

Tallah raised an eyebrow, made sure his avatar followed suit. “Ah, but you also need comets, no?”

Oort cloud-like formation of ice and dust does exist, farther from the central sun than Earth standard,” Alie said. “Given a few million years, who knows?”

Plus, sir, it could’ve happened to us,” Ornme said. “I mean Earth. A spaceship might’ve done the same thing we just did and triggered it all.”

An inept captain blundering into the solar system as the source of life on Earth.” Tallah laughed. “I love it.”

*

Fifteen minutes after the final repair, Tallah called a “meeting.” He’d gone back to the arboretum, but, as usual, his crew was scattered all over, together only in the shipweb. Hard had integrated himself into his usual position in the ship’s controls. Alie’s and Ornme’s physiques rested together in one of the cabins styled after an ancient wooden sailing ship cabin; Sopre was intermixed with the navigation and star-mapping wetware. Rasha’s physique rested in comfort in the main communications nodule next to Golola. Erin haunted the ship’s life-support circuits. Mallory’s avatar stood next to Tallah’s on the virtual bridge. Everyone wanted to be a part of the final push to the signal’s source.

“The signal is stronger, but that makes sense because we’re a heck of a lot closer,” Tallah said. “Hard, Sopre and Golola anticipate two more jumps and we’re there. Small jumps, so we don’t lose track. What will we find? We don’t know, although Sopre has an interesting theory.”

Mere reflection,” Sopre said.

“Of what?” Alie asked.

“Our own messages. We’ve been beaming stuff into space since the mid-twentieth century. Much of it chaotic and unorganized, but we also sent some deliberate narrow-band signals. Some of the same stuff we’ve been picking up—periodic table, mathematical processes, geometric puzzles. No telling where they’ve been—around the galaxy and back again. And that’s what we could be picking up.”

“We’re chasing our own ancestors?” The incredulity in Rasha’s voice came through the comm clearly.

“Just a suggestion,” Sopre said, letting his avatar twitch a rare smile.

Or, perhaps, they aren’t strictly ours,” Alie said. “They were at the beginning, but an intelligence has modified them. The secret of the universe is inside our own little transmissions.”

Every time you talk about a nonhuman intelligence, chills run up and down my spine,” Golola said.

Stop inhabiting bodies and you won’t have chills,” Hard said.

Let’s not get into that argument,” Tallah said. “Does anyone here see any reason we should not proceed?”

Outside of meeting an insufferable Sohara grinning ear to ear?” Mallory asked.

Perhaps, but I don’t care. We’ve some this far, we’re going all the way. Any objections?”

None came.

Very well. You all know your duties. We leave in five minutes.”

The multi-image faded away to the green grass and the gnarly small-scale oak growing around him. A hand touched his shoulder. He looked up at Kerin, who had attached herself to a low-hanging limb.

You were awfully silent,” he said.

She gazed at him a moment, then said, “What is it between you and Sohara anyway? How did all this start?”

Accidentally. We’re from different places in the Tausol system. I lived on a terraformed planet, she on an orbital habitat. We’d never met before, but we did nearly the same project for the Intrasystem Youth Games and Challenge, a postulation on why the galaxy was devoid of life except for humans, complete with bio- and geo-experiments, holo movies and complex computations. The organizers thought it cute to place our presentation booths side by side. At first, we just glared at each other, then tried every trick in the book to sway the judges to our point of view. Sohara came to all the wrong conclusions, of course, so it really hurt when we had to share third place.” Tallah looked up into the tree. “We didn’t meet again until we got to the Tausol branch of Galactic Institute. I was just about to lay claim to the last and best cadet quarters in the most sought-after dorm when she came tearing down the hall and tried to snatch the keycard. It ended in a tussle on the floor. The command cadets took a dim view and sent us to the discipline board the first day, a new record at the Institute. We were sentenced to dig a ditch. We immediately started sniping at each other about who was the better ditch-digger.” Tallah shrugged. “The Institute got a lot more ditch than they expected. Or wanted.”

Kerin burst into laughter. She started to say something, but lost it in more laughter. When she finally regained control, she asked, “Who got the room?”

Neither. We were assigned small, drafty rooms the entire five years. That punishment went a long way.”

So you became lovers.”

Tallah snorted. “Is that what you’ve been worrying about?”

Everybody just assumes—”

Everyone assumes wrong.” Tallah tried to control the heat he felt rising in his face. “Not even at the Institute. We were rivals, we didn’t play the opposites-attract game. The rivalry just … continued on its own. I respect Sohara, all that she’s accomplished. That’s all. We are not lovers. Not now, not ever.”

Of course not.” Kerin’s eyes glittered with mirth. “You and her are real pieces of work.”

Prepare for the jump, doctor. Attend to your duties.”

Kerin laughed, leaned down and planted a kiss on Tallah’s cheek.

That should hold you until you get Sohara in your arms again—”

Doctor,” Tallah snapped with all the authority he could muster.

She pushed off and sailed away, laughing the whole time.

Tallah shook his head as he returned to his avatar on the bridge.

Ready,” came Hard’s level voice.

“Go.”

Seven thousand light years in one jump, a small one as things went, but even that far beyond the dreams of the techno-infants of the 20th century who thought light speed was a wall, not a jumping-off point. The Kepler had traveled almost the entire width of the Milky Way, jumping across starry arms from Orion to Perseus to Cygnus, avoiding the crowded center. The entire galaxy was open to humans now, no star theoretically too far away. Still, expansion of the human sphere was slow, methodical. No sense getting too far ahead of the colonists, too far ahead of the timeline for developing viable worlds. And in all those millions of light years, all those stars, all those planets, big and small, orbiting close and orbiting far, not one sign of life. No grand cities, no huge orbiting structures. No giant dinosaur-like creatures wandering a green, humid, wet world. No single-celled creatures, no bacteria living in the hot and the cold places despite the certainty that if they could do that on Earth, they could anywhere. No grand alliances or federations. The enemies humans battled in space were other humans, those who grew restive under perceived oppression, those who wanted more than they were allotted. No off-world cantinas crowded with creatures of every hue and shape, six-legged, eight-legged, tri-sex, UV-seeing; no odd furniture to hold odd bodies, no even odder restroom fixtures to accommodate odd physiologies.

Just humans. And vast, lonely expanses of space.

So far, term N in the Drake Equation remained at 1.

Dead stop, unfolding complete. Next, last, jump, just eleven more—”

The signal has stopped.”

The ship fell silent at Rasha’s words. Seconds ticked by, no one moved or spoke. Tallah realized he had a death grip on the railing that surrounds the bridge ops center. But it doesn’t exist; what is he gripping with his real hands? A flash of panic as he thought of Kerin, but no, she had gone to the medical bay. Tallah breathed in relief, but he didn’t release his grip.

Is the source charted?”

Yes, sir, we’ve had that for a while.” Sopre’s voice betrayed nothing. “A point source, now, ninety-eight percent certainty.”

Tallah looked at his hands again, looked back as the view field.

Go.”

Arrival,” Hard intoned when the field cleared. “Unfolding complete.”

Silence descended again as everyone studied the view. Illuminated gas drifted in the space before them, thin, tenuous.

Scan.”

“Um, another ship.” Alie said quietly. “Sir, the Kalpana Chawla. Off starboard, sixty kilometers from us, same distance from source.”

Tallah found himself staring at his hands again. He took a breath, finally relaxed his grip, then looked at the view field.

“What’s that hanging just above her ship?”

“Three klicks across, rough surface, frozen water, methane—a ball of dirty snow,” Alie said.

“Signal from the Kalpana, sir.”

“Accept.”

Sohara hadn’t changed much; her hair still dark, her still-bright eyes peering from beneath her bangs.

Hello, Kepler. Made it at last, did you?”

How long have you been here?” Tallah asked.

She shrugged. “Two hours, twelve minutes, forty-seven seconds.”

Almost simultaneously.”

Sohara smiled. Probably really her, not an image, Tallah decided. “And what are the odds? Almost as if someone were playing a game.”

Uh-huh,” Tallah said. “What’s that comet nucleus doing there?”

Oh, that,” she said. “It got caught in the fold as we left, uh, our last stop.”

In an Oort Cloud?”

As if you never ran into anything. Sensors say one of your struts has been rebuilt recently.”

Tallah shrugged. “Asteroid belt. Couple stops ago.”

Sohara gazed at him a moment, but she couldn’t stop the grin. Tallah felt one forming on his face.

We’ve detected an anomaly,” Ornme’s voice cut in.

“That’s just Sohara,” Tallah said.

Sohara smirked. “Not quite. It comes from that hydrogen cloud. We were wondering when you—”

Did you lose the signal?”

Sohara nodded. “As we approached last jump. But there’s some kind of active field in the center, and it’s not random.”

“Confirm?” Tallah asked.

Confirmed,” Ornme, Alie and Sopre said in unison.

How shall we proceed, Sohara?” Tallah asked.

This is bigger than both of us, Tallah binDen. This time, we should share success—or failure.”

Agree. Shall we move in, then?”

Absolutely.”

Set course for source and rendezvous with Kalpana as we move in. Constant comm.”

The trip in took nearly two hours. Few words were exchanged, but everyone concentrated on the view screen. As they cleared a particularly dense part of the cloud, an object formed in the space ahead of them. It resembled a cube set on one corner, but stretched, like a crystal twisting in the sun.

Dead stop,” Tallah said.

Holding at six hundred kilometers.”

“I can’t scan much,” Alie said. “It’s like an energy field without a center.”

“This is the source of the signal?” Tallah asked.

“Can’t say, sir,” Ornme said. “It’s within best guess of the source by triangulation.”

Sohara, what … oop.”

The ship’s interior twisted around Tallah. He tried to bark an order, but all contact with his body, virtual or real, was severed. The ship seemed to fall away like wrapping paper being torn off. The stars returned, flowed around and above him in glittering streaks. A spot source of light grew to his left. He turned, or was turned, to face it. Ground stretched before him, flat and smooth. A tall, magnificent oak tree took shape before him and he drifted toward it. He stopped about two meters away, raised his head to look up into the branches. A stirring began in his mind like leaves twisting in a breeze. He felt more than heard a voice in his head.

Only one can exist. You have made it this far, but you have sown the seeds of your own destruction.

A stronger breeze rustled the leaves. Something moved to the left of the tree, pushing up from the ground. Another tree, growing rapidly, leaves and branches stretching, searching. But no tree Tallah ever knew; this one had black bark with spikes. The bright red leaves were long, and each had five barbed points. The new tree soon dwarfed the oak, towering over its crown. With a rustle and a whisper of sound like a satisfied sigh, it extended its branches, the barbed leaves reaching out. The branches swooped down and the entire black tree covered the oak completely, consuming it until there was nothing upon the plain except the now-huge tree, its trunk so wide it looked like a wall.

There can be only one. In your haste to get here, you have initiated the creation of those who will supplant you. You want to know the universe, but you have little time left.

The monster tree shook from root to crown like a predator shouting its power to the universe. A branch whipped out, heading straight for him. He could hear the whistling of the air through the clawed leaves, but he couldn’t move—

Easy.” Someone was pushing against his shoulders. Kerin faded into his vision, looking down at him.

He took a breath. “I’m back. I think.”

“Looks like it.”

“I was by an oak tree.” He gestured at the tree above Kerin. “Like this one, but bigger. Another came and ate it.”

We know. The images you saw were recorded in the shipweb.”

That’s interesting. How’s the ship?”

All ship functions normal,” came Hard’s voice. “No damage, no injuries.”

The Kalpana?”

Same. Capt. Sohara was affected the same as you, but her crew reports she’s coming around also.”

Tallah noted he was still secured to the oak tree in the arboretum. He formed the bridge in his mind. His whole crew had an avatar standing or sitting at consoles. Except Hard, of course. Everyone was calm, but the type of calm with an edge underneath. “What else?”

“It’s all gone, Captain,” Rasha said. “The anomaly, the energy field, it all disappeared. When it did, you and Capt. Sohara recovered.”

How long did all this last?”

From the moment the scanning—which is what it was, someone scanning us—to your return to consciousness was seventeen minutes,” Hard said.

Your body remained here, but your … mind, I guess we have to say, was elsewhere,” Kerin said. “Vital signs strong, except brain-wave functions.”

Every avatar, representing his crew in one form or another, had its head turned toward him.

You all saw the same thing I did?”

Aye, sir,” said Mallory. “Dasin on Kalpana reports the scenario was the same for Capt. Sohara and that crew.”

Were you aware of something being said?”

Aye,” Alie said. “Does it mean what I think it means?”

Uh, Captain, excuse me,” Rasha cut in, “but Capt. Sohara—”

A shape shimmered next to Tallah. “Is here. Hi.” Her avatar was as she really was: White top, gray pants, no shoes. Her dark eyes glittered.

Did I say you could invade my ship?”

No.”

Tallah sighed. “So how are you doing?”

“I have a slight headache,” she said.

I don’t, and it’s because I assimilate data better than you.”

She snorted, but then they both burst into laughter.

“Your crew tapped in?” Tallah said.

Absolutely,” Sohara said. “They have a stake in this discussion, too.”

Right. We will need to do more analysis of this place, find any evidence of structures left behind. We’ll need to examine and parse the message frame by frame, nanosecond by nanosecond. We need to find something that tells us who did this, who brought us here, why. We will do this scientifically, thoroughly and with open minds.

But yes, I think it means what you all think it means.”

Who the hades were they?” growled Hard.

The previous occupants of the galaxy, I believe,” Ornme said.

I don’t remember us doing anything to wipe them out,” said Dasin, Sohara’s pilot.

Remember those Terran ants you found in the food storage?” said a voice from Sohara’s ship Tallah didn’t recognize. “The ones you stomped on? That was them.”

If this is a cycle, then they likely got the same message from the even more previous occupants,” Kerin said. “So they just sort of absented themselves early.”

The cowards,” Golola snapped.

Yeah, well, whatever,” Hard said. “It means we’re still alone in the galaxy.”

But we’ve sowed the seeds of our own destruction,” Erin said. “How’d we do that?”

By upsetting the balance in a couple of planetary systems,” Ornme said. “You know, knocking around a few asteroids. Or Oort Cloud ice chunks in the case of another ship.”

Sohara tapped her nose with a finger. “I find that fascinating. One of us—probably the Kalpana because we’re more competent—has triggered the long development of new, sentient life in the galaxy. One that could challenge, and supplant, us in the far future.”

As if you knew what you were doing when you scattered those comets,” Tallah said. “It will be interesting to see who’s system becomes the champ.”

Why is there only one?” Hard asked. “And, damnit, there has to be accidental collisions of planet-making rocks somewhere in this boring galaxy.”

As to the last question, who knows?” Tallah said. “It’s possible hundreds, thousands, of worlds are being assembled, perhaps one with our future enemy. We just haven’t run into it yet.

As for why only one, look at human history. We’re always fighting each other over the most trivial things.” Tallah looked at the now-dispersing gas cloud. “Imagine if we really did meet aliens so much different than us.”

I am,” Mallory said slowly. “Those—beings, whatever—said ‘only one.’ Said it twice, they did. Yet both of us, the Kepler and the Kalpana, have sparked action in two different systems. Accidents aside, what if both were to create worlds of sentient life?”

And why the hell should we take their word for it anyway?” Hard asked, using another old word he liked to use. “Who gave them the keys to the universe anyway? Why shouldn’t there be more?”

Now that’s an intriguing idea,” Mallory said. “If we can jump-start one, or two, sentient worlds by bumping rocks and ice around, why not do it three or four times? Or a dozen times? Or a thousand times? Just jump all over the place and kick asteroid.” His avatar shrugged. “A galaxy-wide, inter-species planetary war sure would be a lot more interesting than what’s happening now.”

Sohara’s avatar suddenly stood straight. “Well, that’s all interesting speculation, but I think we’re finished here, so we’ll, uh, we’ll just mosey along.”

Don’t forget your snowball,” Tallah said as Sohara faded away. As soon as her avatar had disappeared completely, he said, “Hard, leave a sensor-communications array here. Have it send data from scans along with recordings of all aspects of the trip here through fold-space to Fleet. Then prepare to jump.”

Uh, sir, where?”

Don’t know, don’t care. Look for young planetary systems. We’re going to make liars out those idiots. ‘Only one’ indeed.”

Even though the bridge was only a virtual place, an air of electricity seemed to crackle through the area. Avatars turned toward panels and read-outs, grins on most of their faces.

Capt. Sohara’s hailing,” Rasha said.

Forget it, Tallah,” Sohara said from the view field. “I’ll trigger more planet formations than you ever will, you bumbling idiot. And any world we create will outshine yours like supernovae.”

Unlikely,” Tallah snapped back. “Anything you create will have the collective intellect of rock—”

Huh. We’ll see.” The field went blank.

Mallory moaned. “By all the gods of the universe. Here we go again.”

You know,” Kerin said from somewhere, “it would be better for all the galaxy and the people in it now and the people to come if Tallah and Sohara would just find a nice, shady spot somewhere with soft grass and gentle breezes tinged with sweet, aromatic scents and just rut until they explode.”

Snickers and giggles filled the comm lines.

We are not lovers! And if everyone is done amusing themselves with fantasies about my love life, let’s get going. Hard!”

Array deployed, target area selected. Ready to jump.”

Then jump, damnit!”

They jumped.

Copyright 2011 Terry D. England

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